Forever Blowing Bubbles

John Haber
in New York City

Jean-Siméon Chardin

One remembers Chardin as another painter entirely. How appropriate, somehow, to the deceptive modesty of his art.

The wrong man

Even after his impressive retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jean-Siméon Chardin eludes criticism. People compare his skill at illusion to Jan Vermeer's nearly a century before. They speak of Vermeer's gleaming surfaces. They see the French painter through Vermeer's compositions, built up brick by brick, as perfectly constructed as his interiors. Jean-Siméon Chardin's Soap Bubbles (Wentworth Fund, c. 1734)

In reality, Chardin's brush has a looseness that Vermeer (or Vermeer's milkmaid) would have despised. It changes direction to follow a cat's movement. It slows or sweeps to take on the dry glaze of pottery or the rawness of fish and fur. It drops color at the barest hint of a reflection or a smear of light.

Chardin's compositions, too, grow coarse toward the edges, as another still-life painter of the century, Jean-Étienne Liotard, never could. Especially in early works, a shelf dissolves into wall space as soon as he no longer needs it.

Vermeer's Woman Weighing Pearls makes a balance into a metaphor. It stands at once for life's profound choices and for his art's formidable diagonals and pyramids. Chardin scatters cherries around a cistern as if they fell there by chance. A young man faces his governess as best he can. Perhaps a winning smile and boastful turn of his chest will make her overlook the toys on the floor behind him. Chardin clearly sympathizes. He, too, composes space not by building it up and cleaning up after it, but by encircling it in the detritus of life's pleasures.

Or one leaps ahead a century or two. One remembers Gustave Courbet—those thickly painted rocks, trees, and naked flesh, that extension in paint of the dark, material current of things. In reality, Chardin's surfaces never break a sweat. His uniform textures, like his reduced palette, stand for the soft, even yellow of muted sunlight. His actors, like his art's viewers, remain too absorbed in what they touch and see to imagine an epic struggle with nature.

Even contemporaries managed to look right past him. Enlightenment critics, too, praised his perfection. When Denis Diderot saw his murky tans, he thought first of Rembrandt. In fact, Chardin had no use for Rembrandt's oily depths, exotic props, and old-fashioned worry about human form. As a girl glances in a mirror, she has nothing to hide and little human anatomy to disclose. Chardin's maidservants have the smooth, rounded cheeks and bodices of Rococo porcelain.

High and low

I find these mistakes revealing. They testify to Chardin's quiet strength—that mixture of Vermeer's trust in light, Courbet's trust in things, and Rembrandt's trust in human sympathy. For all his influence on Giorgio Morandi, the modernist withholds exactly that.

In what they leave out, too, they reveal so much. Without Chardin's highly selective focus, he could never have pulled off his immersion in the everyday. Besides, they suit a great academic painter—the successful academic's attention to tradition and to aspiring artists while reaching for the top. I imagine him pleased by the confusion.

Chardin usually got what he wanted. He entered the Academy in 1725, while still in his mid-20s. Antoine Watteau had died young just four years before, after transforming art. With his delicate, distant, bucolic scenes and the unblinking intimacy of his pen, Watteau had ushered in the Rococo. Chardin absorbed it all, but he continued on with the business of still-life painting, almost as if the Dutch masters, too, had never passed away.

Carle van Loo, Chardin's contemporary, soon became known as the greatest French painter of his day, thanks to his sweeping canvases and grand religious themes. Down in Italy, Giambattista Tiepolo was taking human history into the clouds. Chardin persisted in the lowest of the official genres, domestic interiors. And before long, he was running the Academy, influencing a generation to come. The man with a handful of studio props and a passing skill at still life was overseeing the transition from a master's workshop to academic art and a nation's official Salon.

And so it goes, the quietly successful painter in half-remembered academic traditions and an easily overlooked century. No wonder pretty much everyone praises his work to the skies but describes him as if he lived in some more exalted era. Reviews of his wonderful retrospective at the Met did it again. I have done it more than once myself.

However, like his brushwork, Chardin's simply getting on with things means more than blending in. In the modesty of his objects, people, and pretensions, he remade painting. One can see why the Academy lasted so long, barely disturbed even by Romanticism a century later. It colors views of the birth of Modernism even today.

The end of eternity . . .

Take Vermeer's women again, surrounded by dreams of wealth, salvation, the outside world, and love. The Dutch artist makes an individual gesture into a lifetime, because a woman's life is riding on it. He hardly strays, in a sense, from more tiresome Dutch interiors after all. All those endless drinking scenes, those skulls and snuffed-out candles, amount to lessons in mortality. Without moralizing at the level of a Sunday sermon, Vermeer, like others of his time, reaches for eternity.

Chardin sticks to the moment at hand. Sure, picking up where the Dutch left off, he recycles the old skulls and candles. His youths never miss a chance to catch themselves in the mirror. Only for the first time, a painter refuses to question what they see. Even a skull stares out, as if scorning the proverbs and fate. A modern still life could ask for no more.

The Met notes the emblems of Vanitas, but scholars now consider their meaning unclear. I think that Chardin trusts the lessons of the past, but he has no use for proverbs. He still believes in virtue, only as a way of getting on with life. Like his actors, he has made a great discovery—how to take one moment at a time.

With more than a touch of upper-class condescension, he admires a woman patiently spinning yarn. I fully expect that poor lad to clean up his room. Yet Chardin never begrudges women their glance in the mirror. In one painting, a mirror even opens up new virtues, for it reflects a washerwoman, poor and without a trace of vanity. She is getting on with her work, not unlike a painter.

Emblems that once opened out to eternity now stand for a more mundane sense of time. Chardin snatches a moment just before it disappears. Those candle flames die in an instant. Smoke rises convincingly from a tea kettle, as palpable as the plain, wooden table beneath it.

The French speak of nature morte rather than still life, nature not just motionless but dead. For Chardin, nothing sits still. Smoke drifts away, and a very live cat pounces. Perhaps paintings do arrange the same pots and furniture year after year, but in the meantime the vegetables will have decayed. The bourgeois, with Chardin as their first great chronicler, will have bought and dressed new ones. This, too, shall pass.

. . . And the beginning of time

I am talking about the creation of a new time scale, what the computer world calls "real time." At Chardin's birth, with the invention of calculus, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhem von Leibniz were dissecting time. Chardin does it in paint.

Real time also connects to the experience of theater. As Michael Fried has argued famously, painting in that century had theater on its mind. In his cloud scenes, Tiepolo makes myth and religion theatrical, and Chardin invites viewers to a more secular performance. One sits quite apart from the actors—in one's station in life, but also in reality—absorbed in their spectacle as in a play. And while the spectator may never enter their world, they dutifully show the way, absorbed themselves in their tasks.

Chardin's rough edges echo the stage, too. As a play opens, after all, suddenly a curtain draws aside, focusing my attention while hiding the wings. Chardin's stage mirrors take care not to point to the wings, too. They never reflect an outside world, such as the corner of the painter's easel, much less a trace of the audience.

Fried makes theater into a loose concept, baggy enough to contain Chardin's casual tales, J.-B. Greuze's piety, and even Minimalism. He sees Modernism as piercing the stage curtain at last, while losing the sense of the everyday. He forgets how modern painters take each moment at a time, from Ashcan realists to Jackson Pollock's drips.

Still, he puts his finger on how Chardin suspends judgment, including judgment of the viewers themselves. He awakens an idea of theater and illusion divorced from falsity, paradox, or struggle. His trust in the imagination ushered in a new century. It could well stand for the Enlightenment in paint—or Jean-Antoine Houdon in sculpture.

So simple, so simple

Like art, philosophers had sought a world made not from proverbs but from experience. Again at Chardin's birth, John Locke was nearing death, leaving behind a theory of human understanding based on each passing "sensation" and "reflection." No one can imagine reality without just such "simple ideas," available to any child. "Lights and colors are busy at hand everywhere when the eye is but open." And above all, Locke kept his faith in the "objects" behind the passing show—and on the mind capable of engaging them.

Chardin reveled in those simple ideas, those flashes of magic that objects have the power to instill in everyone. As a flame dies, as a boy blows his bubbles, they accept the fragile solidity of things. Locke rooted solidity in the sense of touch. Chardin holds onto a world of sight, while stressing that it can show the texture of objects. Forget David Hockney and his naive description of a camera obscura. As Locke knew, human understanding does a remarkable job of priming the blank slate, but then artists have to work hard on a blank canvas, too.

For Locke, those simple ideas add up to a complex reality. And then I think of Chardin's maturity, as he grew to combine his trademark gestures into ever-more-intricate compositions. A working woman, a dreaming child, a mirror, a pot, a cat, a fallen spoon, a half-revealed alcove—a painting may hold them all. No wonder he kept those very same pots in his studio year after year, like the elements in Mondrian's increasingly varied series.

Locke also saw language as a transparent window onto reality. I think of Chardin's paint, so thin compared to Courbet's, so much less concerned with itself than Vermeer's, so distant from the heightened clarity and texture of contemporary still life by, say, Ellen Altfest. As for Locke, simple ideas and things, like human decency, come unmuddied by the paradoxes of modernity.

The Met shows Chardin's growth well, thanks to that increasing rarity, a retrospective of reasonable size. In half a dozen rooms, one sees him gain confidence after those awkward edges and the gamble of live animals. He takes up his trademark props, then introduces his scenes of the rising bourgeoisie. In his last years, the props and canvases get more pretentious, with studies of learned men, larger dimensions, and glossier surfaces.

But then time takes its toll on everyone, and one need not just bear with it but treasure it. What could be wrong, Chardin asked for a lifetime, with blowing one's own bubbles before they pop?

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The Chardin retrospective ran through September 3, 2000, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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